This is the fifth novel in Gore Vidal’s chronicle of American history. So far it runs from Burr (1973) to Lincoln (1984) and 1876 (1976), then on to Washington, D.C. (1967) and the onset of World War II. Empire covers the turn of the century, from 1898 with William McKinley’s administration, to 1906, when Theodore Roosevelt, who came to office after McKinley’s assassination in 1901, had reached the middle of his first elected term. Roosevelt had already helped set the course of American empire as McKinley’s assistant secretary of the Navy. Presiding over the buildup of the American fleet, he was strongly persuaded by the views of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, author in 1890 of The Influence of Sea Power upon History, and of his friend Brooks Adams, whose Law of Civilization and Decay (1895) argued that political supremacy depended largely on the control of trade routes.
Roosevelt did not need much persuading. He had reached similar conclusions in 1882 with his own The Naval War of 1812. An ardent supporter of American expansion, he agreed with the Brooks Adams of America’s Economic Supremacy (1900) that “supremacy has always entailed sacrifices as well as triumphs, and fortune has seldom smiled on those who, besides being energetic and industrious, have not been armed, organized, and bold.” “Bully,” as Roosevelt is apt to say several times too often in this novel, clicking his ever visible “tombstone teeth.”
Roosevelt had a large element of the ridiculous in him, but as presidents go, he was unusually smart. Because of him America was “armed, organized, and bold” at the right time and place. So that while the American people may have been taken by surprise, Roosevelt and the fleet were ready when the Maine was blown up in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, then a Spanish possession. The fleet was so close to the Philippines that William James, one of the teachers exasperated by Teddy’s loquacity at Harvard, and later an officer of the Anti-Imperialist League—he is absent from Vidal’s glittering cast of characters—was among those who wondered just how surprised anyone had a right to be. James could not then have known that Roosevelt, while briefly replacing his superior at Navy, had secretly ordered Admiral Dewey to assemble his ships at Hong Kong, from which they could steam into Manila and destroy the Spanish Armada.
In a mere ten weeks America had come into possession of a vast empire that included Cuba, to which independence of a sort was granted, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. The Philippines took time to overcome, requiring the brutal suppression of an independence movement originally armed and inspired by the islands’ new conquerors, and at a cost in lives, fortune, and honor greater than the cost of the war with Spain. All told it had been, in John Hay’s phrase, “a splendid little war.”
Empire opens with a house party at Surrenden Dering, deep in the English …